On the Road: Midnight in Memphis

Tags: Expedited Shipping

FedEx primary package facility processes 2,500 items an hour. A behind-the-scenes look reveals how the bustling facility operates.

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Destination: Memphis, Tenn.

Location: Memphis is the largest city in Tennessee, third-largest city in the U.S. Southeast, located in the southwest corner of the state along the Mississippi River.

Population: 676,640

Distance from Inbound Logistics HQ: 1,096 miles

 

As a transportation and logistics writer, burning the midnight oil is a habit of choice. In the wee hours of the night, distractions are few. It’s me and my Mac, and the awkward tap-tap— silence— tap-tap as I hunt and peck through the alphabet.

But I’m not alone. Writing aside, freight movement belongs to the night. All over the United States, there are places where the clock never stops, where the second hand spins faster after the bell tolls midnight. While the world sleeps— and as I struggle with piecing together sources and research into a cohesive sentence, paragraph, article— people are actually doing what I’m trying to describe in words. That’s the real story.

It’s hard not to be intrigued, then, by a press trip agenda that begins at 11 p.m. and carries through into the next day. In June 2010, the Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce invited me to tour the FedEx Memphis hub at midnight. Accepting was an easy decision— and, for once, a worthy late-night excuse to procrastinate.

Approaching FedEx Express’ Memphis hub at 11 p.m. on a spring night is awe-inspiring. Even one mile away, floodlights pouring from the 832-acre facility fill the darkness. It’s comparable to an NFL stadium parking lot on game night, but bigger. In fact, the FedEx hub is eight times larger than the Tennessee Titans’ LP Field complex. It takes 20 minutes just to drive across the facility.

Many of the 8,000 employees who make up the night crew leave their cars in the four satellite parking lots surrounding the hub, then hop shuttle buses to the facility. Before the overnight shift begins at 11:30 p.m., the entrance lobby is a mad rush as employees spill out of shuttles. Upon entrance, all employees and guests pass through airport metal detectors. Workers are well-conditioned to the nightly ritual, so movement is fast and fluid.

At 9 p.m., when commercial airlines stop flying in and out of Memphis, the city shuts down— apart from Beale Street. It’s FedEx time. Between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., Memphis is the busiest airport in the world. On an average night, the facility handles 150 airplanes and 1.5 million shipments, 2.2 million at peak, and more than 4,000 arrivals and departures per month.

Out on the tarmac, with golf carts, bomb carts, and tugs hustling about— ferrying people, freight, and fuel— you get an idea of how FedEx manages such a monumental task every night of the year. At its busiest, planes land every 45 seconds on three north/south runways and two that run east/west.

A Nighttime Symphony

Watching planes descend from the sky and take off in perfect unison is a nighttime symphony. But even FedEx is prone to discord once in a while. Mother Nature dictates everything. Work hours depend on weather— and whether airplanes can arrive and depart. Employees call automated switchboards for updates. FedEx has contingency plans on top of contingency plans.

Back on the tarmac, offload teams go from input to input, unloading cargo from idling planes. In one area, FedEx aircraft are neatly lined up in two rows facing each other, with a lane in between to accommodate intermediary traffic. It takes between 17 and 31 minutes to offload a plane. Diesel trucks follow suit, fueling a fleet of planes that serves 95 percent of the global economy on a 24- to 48-hour basis. This includes 220 countries and territories, and six continents.

Closer to the hub, conveyors help move freight in and out. “Conveyor belts are like tires,” explains Ed Miller, a FedEx employee and tour guide. “They get flats and require constant upkeep.”

Aircraft require maintenance, as well. In the near distance, two well-lit, World War II-like hangars illuminate their occupants— a 777 in one, three widebody aircraft in another. Ninety percent of all FedEx airplane maintenance checks happen in Memphis. Tail #172 might not return to the hub for months at a time while it cruises the world delivering packages.

Inside the Matrix

From outside on the tarmac to inside the FedEx hub— called the “matrix” for obvious reasons— the difference is night and day in terms of T-5 lighting and temperature. The belly of the beast is a hot mess of automated package-sorting systems, conveyor belts, and boxes. Employees coolly and quickly bring order to chaos.

The FedEx hub really is super: It encompasses roughly 15 million square feet of sortage space— the equivalent of 112 Sam’s Club warehouse stores.

The primary package-sorting matrix has two sides, east and west. Purple and orange racks dominate subtler greens and yellows, and the pedestrian red and gray mezzanine walkways. Much like its colors, the matrix is loud. Fans whir round in an effort to circulate stagnant air.

Watching an assortment of packages course through myriad arterial conveyances is mind-boggling. When shipments arrive in the hub they are scanned and measured, identifying where a package is shipped from, how much it weighs, and where it’s bound. Workers busily flip boxes label up, and place them on conveyors.

Farther along, there’s another conveyance, and a cascade of colored boxes of assorted shapes and sizes sliding off a tilt tray sorter— all triggered by a bar-code label scan. If you’ve ever seen an avalanche, and the detritus left in its wake, this is the distribution center equivalent. Workers pick through the debris that falls down the chute— Virginia Farms’ flowers, blood packaged on dry ice, medicine packs, even boxes filled with live lobsters— and send them on their way.

In the primary package facility, FedEx processes 2,500 items every hour. After boxes leave the matrix, they are typically sorted two more times before they are placed in outbound containers and positioned on planes for departure.

A two-hour tour of the FedEx hub at night doesn’t do it justice. There’s too much going on to truly capture and appreciate the sheer immensity and accomplishment of sorting 1.5 million packages a night, 365 days a year.

“The FedEx hub is like an anthill,” says Mark Herbison, senior vice president of economic development for the Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce. “You can’t understand how they get it done.”

On April 17, 1973, Federal Express debuted by delivering 186 packages to 25 U.S. cities on 14 small aircraft.

To even imagine what life was like before expedited shipping took flight is difficult to grasp.

I’ve been to a few FedEx hubs in my travels— Anchorage and Greensboro, notably— but Memphis is clearly the grandfather of them all. Make no mistake about it; the matrix is a dinosaur compared to the state-of-the-art, bell-and-whistle-laden distribution facilities FedEx operates elsewhere. Despite this absence, the Memphis facility has the look and feel of a trustworthy, nuts-and-bolts, legacy ERP system that may be a little cumbersome, but always gets the job done.